Many female athletes encounter higher concussion rates than their male counterparts, according to two studies conducted by researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS).
The researchers conclude their findings demonstrate a need for further interventions to reduce concussion rates, such as the required use of protective head equipment in women’s sports, the adoption of neck-strengthening exercises and other prevention training, and greater enforcement of rules to decrease levels of contact in men’s sports.
Concussions can occur in a wide range of sports, affecting not only professional athletes but youth athletes as well. There are approximately 1.7 million to 3.8 million sports concussions reported in the nation each year as well as 1.1 million to 1.9 million pediatric recreation-related concussions.
For the first paper, “Sex-Based Differences in the Incidence of Sports-Related Concussion: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” first published on September 30, 2019, in the journal Sports Health, senior author Daphne Ling, PhD, MPH, a sports medicine epidemiologist at HSS, and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of sex-based differences in concussion incidence in lacrosse, soccer, baseball/softball, basketball, track and field and swimming/diving. They found that the concussion incidence rates for females were statistically significantly higher compared to males in both soccer and basketball.
“While the causes are unknown, we suspect this sex difference in concussion incidence in soccer and basketball might be attributed to females having decreased head and neck strength, greater peak angular acceleration and increased angular displacement compared to males. Female athletes are also more likely to disclose their symptoms to coaches and parents. This is important for physicians to consider when treating patients who participate in these sports,” concluded Dr. Ling.
For the second paper, “Women Are at Higher Risk for Concussions Due to Ball or Equipment Contact in Soccer and Lacrosse,” published online ahead of print on October 17, 2019, in the journal Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research (CORR), senior author Ellen Casey, MD, a sports medicine physician with the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at HSS, and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 10 studies published from January 2000 to December 2018. The studies reported concussion incidence for both male and female athletes who participated in the following sports: ice hockey, soccer, basketball, baseball/softball and lacrosse. The objective was to identify in which sports female athletes were less likely to experience concussions from player contact versus ball or equipment contact.
In female athletes, the main cause of concussions was contact with the ball or equipment in lacrosse, and heading the ball in soccer. Additionally, female hockey players were more likely than male players to experience concussions after contact with the ice surface. The researchers found no differences between male baseball and female softball players for ball/equipment-induced concussions. Similarly, there was no difference observed between male and female basketball players for surface or ball contact.
Furthermore, the pattern of the underlying concussion-causing mechanism was the same regardless of differences between the male and female versions of the sport. It is suggested that sex hormones; decreased neck strength in female athletes, which reduces their ability to withstand external forces; and increased neck and torso strength in male athletes, which allows them to better absorb impact in the upper body versus in the head alone, may play a role in the sex differences in concussion incidence.
To reduce their risk of concussion, Dr. Casey advises women to participate in exercises to enhance neck strength, stiffness and neuromuscular control, as females tend to have deficits in these areas relative to males. “Depending on the sport, exercises and training to optimize technique with high-risk movements, such as heading the ball in soccer, are also critical in reducing concussion risk.”
Dr. Casey concluded, “If we truly want to reduce the impact of sports concussions, more research is needed on what causes concussions so that prevention measures can be put in place as well as better reporting of sex and gender differences across sports.”